David Brooks: We Change People for the Better by Knowing Them More Fully

The New York Times columnist says extraordinary things happen—both personally and socially—when we pay attention to others.

Twenty years ago, I got stuck in the back of a van with a rather dull missionary.

All of us missionaries were on some trip, and I found myself preparing for hours of driving with this man as my companion. I didn’t know him, but I sensed that if we got to talking, then some political and cultural differences were going to become painfully obvious.

In short, I judged this man, fiercely, before he so much as opened his mouth. I had sized him up, categorized him, set barriers between us, and thereby diminished him and myself in the process. All this, I think, makes me a more or less normal human being. We are constantly doing this to each other.

But before the van ride began, I recall feeling a rare and particularly painful prompting of the Holy Spirit. In a moment I have never forgotten, a phrase flashed through my mind: “There is no such thing as a boring person.”

I felt convicted and inspired all at once. As a missionary, I constantly found myself speaking with students about the dignity of human life, and how that couldn’t be explained without God. Yet I had denied my fellow missionary’s image-bearing dignity before I even knew his name.

I ended up spending hours of that van ride getting to know a human being I still think of very fondly. Years later I still smile at his concern for his children, the compliments he gave his wife, and his tired but very real smile. I doubt he remembers this ride, but my life was changed by a small prompting from God to pay attention to someone I had instinctively diminished.

‘Illuminators’ and ‘Detractors’

All of this brings me to the latest book from New York Times columnist David Brooks, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply …

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